Bibliophiliac is the space where one passionate, voracious reader reflects on books and the reading life. You will find reviews, analysis, links, and reflections on poetry and prose both in and out of the mainstream.

A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. Franz Kafka

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard Books:  New York, 2008
590 pages
The Girl Who Played with Fire by  Stieg Larsson
translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard Books:  New York, 2009
724 pages

Human beings love story.  As soon as something happens, we are already creating a story about it, explaining it to ourselves, creating a narrative.  There is something humanly satisfying in a narrative.

Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy has story.

Which is why I buried myself in the first two books, reading compulsively, plowing through over one thousand three hundred pages in a matter of about four days.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire are not great literature, but they are great stories.  Larsson's prose (translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland) is for the most part serviceable.  But pacing, plot, building suspense--Larsson seems to have been instinctively masterful at these.  If you don't believe me, take a look around, because seemingly everyone is reading and/or talking about these books.  Or, they are talking about the author, who died in 2004, before his astonishingly successful novels were ever published.

It is a given that characters in genre fiction don't change very much, and that is true of Larsson's main characters Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander.  Blomkvist, who seems to have been something of an alter-ego for Larsson, is a disgraced journalist--at the beginning of Dragon Tattoo he has just been convicted of libel.  Still, he's fit, attractive to women, and has an ongoing affair with his beautiful female editor-in-chief--an affair her husband understands and tolerates.  Lisbeth Salander, the character who serves as linchpin to the series, is 4'11" and ninety pounds, has several tattoos (including the dragon), is anti-social, possibly living with Asperger's syndrome, bisexual, and a brilliant computer hacker.  She's also a chess savant and a mathematical genius who solves Fermat's Theorem in her spare time.

Stieg Larsson reportedly based the character of Lisbeth Salander on the Swedish children's classic by Astrid Lindgren, Pippi Longstocking.  Pippi was a little girl who lived alone, with only a monkey and a horse for companions.  Her father was a sea-captain who was living as "king of the cannibals" on a tropical island, and her mother was in heaven.  In the stories, Pippi fends for herself cheerfully, chasing off the policemen who want to put her in a Children's Home, beating up a bunch of bullies who pick on a neighborhood boy, and trying and rejecting the ordinariness of school.  Lisbeth Salander is a grown-up Pippi, with her own practical and personal approach to life, laws, and morality.  There is something appealing in a character who is 4'11" and ninety pounds who takes on the bullies of the world; those bullies include corrupt capitalists, a sadistic lawyer, motorcycle thugs, and whatever sexist idiots decide to underestimate her.  Only in the world of a novel could an under-sized woman consistently prevail over her larger, mostly dumber adversaries, and there is something very satisfying in this fantasy.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was published with the Swedish title of "Man Som Hatan Kvinnor" or "Men Who Hate Women," and there is a feminist sensibility and a feminist rhetoric throughout the novel.  Larsson has nothing but contempt for greedy and corrupt speculators, sexual predators, and those who abuse power.  In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Blomkvist and Salander are brought together when Blomkvist agrees to investigate a decades-old unsolved murder involving a wealthy family that is boiling with intrigue, feuds, resentment and secrets.  Lisbeth, whose computer hacking skills and patient attentiveness make her a superb investigator, is 24-years old at the beginning of the novel, and she has her own traumatic past and family secrets.  Larsson expertly plays Lisbeth's vulnerabilities against her almost superhuman strengths, using her weakness to draw the reader in emotionally, and using her strengths to drive the plot along relentlessly.  Blomkvist's murder investigation becomes intertwined with Salander's story when they team up to work on the inquiry into the presumed murder of Harriet Vanger, whose unexplained disappearance adds an Agatha Christie element to the plot.

In The Girl Who Played with Fire, Lisbeth Salander's history is explored against the backdrop of an investigation into human trafficking.  Blomkvist's publication, Millennium magazine, is about to publish another shocking expose--this time the powerful players include judges, police officers, and public officials.  Once again, Salander and Blomkvist are drawn together by a dangerous, potentially explosive inquiry--only this time Salander herself becomes a murder suspect.  The mystery of Lisbeth Salander's past is slowly revealed in The Girl Who Played with Fire, and many of her eccentricities are explained.  One major subplot of the novel involves Lisbeth's legal status--she is under guardianship, a condition for which there is no legal equivalent in the United States.  Suffice it to say that, like Pippi, Lisbeth is under threat from nasty men who want to take her to the Children's Home permanently.  Salander is forced into hiding, but luckily for her she has plenty of kroner thanks to her superb computer hacking skills.  There is also a diverting buying binge at IKEA, in which each article of furniture is detailed.

In each of the two novels, but especially in The Girl Who Played with Fire, the reader is compelled to willingly suspend disbelief--and sometimes there is a little too much willing suspension, but that narrative drive just keeps pulling the reader along.  The second novel ends with an enormous cliffhanger, and I imagine many readers will do what I did:  resign themselves to going out and buying the third book immediately.  Forget waiting for the paperback.

Along with great narrative pacing and elaborate plot twists, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire have a great creation story at their core.  Debate, mystery and intrigue surround the author, Stieg Larsson.  Larsson, who died suddenly and unexpectedly at age 50, was a graphic designer, a journalist, and an activist.  He was a tireless crusader against neo-Nazi activity in Sweden, had created an organization, a magazine and a web-site to expose the rise of Nazi activity in Europe, and was the subject of many death threats.  He was a feminist, and his feminist views are integral to his novels.  He was almost savagely neglectful of his own health, smoking more than 60 cigarettes a day, and living on a diet very similar to the one Lisbeth Salander follows in the novel (Billy's deep pan microwave pizza and plenty of coffee).  Conspiracy theories have cropped up surrounding his death (he dropped dead of a heart attack after climbing seven floors to his office when the elevator was out).  The fact that he died on the anniversary of Kristallnacht has only fueled the flames of the theories.  His early death meant that he never saw the publication, let alone the success of his books.  The fact that he died without a valid will means that his brother and father have inherited his estate, despite the fact that he lived with one woman, Eva Gabrielsson, for more than thirty years.  In Sweden there is no such thing as common-law marriage; according to published reports, the couple never married or registered as a couple because of Sweden's legal requirement that couples who marry publish their address.  The constant threat of assassination by neo-Nazi and hate groups forced Larsson and Gabrielsson to avoid marriage, and now Larsson's brother and father are in a dispute with Gabrielsson over the estate.  Gabrielsson has maintained possession of a laptop with Larsson's outline and draft, partially completed, for a fourth novel, and that is the subject of a legal dispute as well.

Larsson is the subject of numerous articles and at least one book.  The official Stieg Larsson web site has a fascinating video interview with Eva Gabrielsson (it is in Swedish, with English subtitles).

The organization Larsson founded has its own web site here.

Christian Science Monitor has this excellent article about Larsson, and there is also a very good article about the disputed estate and family quarrel in the New York Times.

If you are annoyed by the kind of publishing phenomenon represented by Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, then you will easily find much to criticize in the novels.  Larsson is strangely detailed about name brands, shopping excursions, and coffee.  Literally thousands of cups of coffee are consumed in the novels (you may find yourself craving espresso).  The writing is pedestrian at best, the characters have unrealistic talents, and at times the action is too cinematic (in an action/thriller/horror sort of way).   But if you are looking for a juicy summer read that you can lose yourself in for hours, then The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire may be just your cup of coffee.


Grad said...

You HAVE been reading like a fiend. You remind me of someone...me! I have been on the fence about The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Heard good things and not so good things, but your review was super. Still on the fence, though. I envy you having a fairly large block of time to do nothing but read. I'm hoping I can do the same later this year. Read on!

Anonymous said...

I'm reading the Girl Who Played With Fire right now. I was actually planning on doing a double review of both books, as well.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo but agree with some of the comments about pedestrian writing, or how specific some of the details are. (I don't need to know what model of Ikea mattress Lisbeth bought).

Jessica said...

Ive just lent my copy of the dragon tattoo to a work friend as she likes that kind of thing. I have owned it for a while now but am never tempted to pick it up a read it.

Anonymous said...

Which one did you like best? I preferred the more straightforward mystery of 'dragon tattoo' but a lot of people seem to prefer how you find out more about lisbeth in 'played with fire'

Judith said...

Fantastic post! Enjoyed every word! I'm a Stieg Larsson fan who loved the first book and can't bear to proceed to the second because I'll be that much closer to the end of the trilogy. Bizarre, right? I also appreciated your LINKS to other articles. Thank You!

Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

bibliophiliac said...

@Grad-when you have time (like that vacation you claimed you were going to take!) and want a great read, go for Dragon Tattoo. I'll be interested if you do read it-I'd like to know how you liked it, and whether you would read the rest of the series....

bibliophiliac said...

@Krista-I know, its almost funny how detailed the shopping lists are in the book!
@ teadevotee-I liked Dragon Tattoo better, only because I thought the story was more plausible. But there were sections of Played with Fire that were just engrossing. I'm planning to read the last book soon.

bibliophiliac said...

@Judith-I know what you mean. There are a finite number of available books from Larsson. You can move on to other Swedes, but it just won't be the same;)

BookQuoter said...

Thanks for this great review and I 'm glad you referred readers to the NYT article. I was very lucky to have read all the books as soon as they came out (was lucky to get the earlier UK edition of the third). My favorite is the first book but the third one is a perfect end for me. I heard the movie is very good too!!

Anonymous said...

Excellent review, these books are on my list to buy so that I have them to read for the airplane ride back to China. They seem like perfect books to make a 13 hour flight seem not so unbearably long.

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Reg / Steve said...

Just to clarify, Swedes are the highest per capita consumers of coffee in the world. Also, Pippi's sea captain father was not a "cannibal," as the old translations from 1949-51 would have it. He became "king" of a South Sea Island tribe of dark-skinned natives when he was shipwrecked -- and of course back in those days anyone dark in tropical climes had to be a cannibal. (Anyone remember the incredibly racist record of Bozo the Clown's trip around the world?) Errors like these have been corrected in Tiina Nunnally's definitive new translation of Pippi Longstocking from Penguin (sadly only in hardcover so far).

Reg / Steve said...

Just to clarify, Swedes are the highest per capita consumers of coffee in the world. Also, Pippi's sea captain father was not a "cannibal," as the old translations from 1949-51 would have it. He became "king" of a South Sea Island tribe of dark-skinned natives when he was shipwrecked -- and of course back in those benighted days anyone dark in tropical climes must be a cannibal. (Anyone remember the incredibly racist record of Bozo the Clown's trip around the world?) Errors like these have been corrected in Tiina Nunnally's definitive new translation of Pippi Longstocking from Penguin (sadly only in hardcover so far).

Reg / Steve said...

Sorry, Blogger password trouble, please delete the first version if you like!

bibliophiliac said...

@Reg-I'm disappointed about the "king of cannibals" only because it seemed so appropriate for Lisbeth. I will have to look up the new translation for Pippi; I read those books as a child, and then read them aloud to my daughters. I think Pippi is a great role model. As for the coffee, I imagine that Swedes must be a highly alert people? An article I read somewhere talked about how offering coffee is a social requirement. I did like the section in the book where Mikael is going from place to place looking for information, and he is offered coffee--and accepts it--each time. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my review.

Reg / Steve said...

Indeed, it seems in every book I translate, the proper place for serious talks, police interviews, and shocking revelations is always the kitchen table over coffee. Sometimes with pastry from the local konditori. This is so common that I use hot keys: "k" for kitchen, "kt" for kitchen table, "c" for coffee, "coc" for cup of coffee, etc.

Try Camilla Läckberg's books; there are a lot of domestic scenes in the inspector's house, and they seem to drink even more coffee on the west coast! They probably need all that caffeine to stay awake through those dark winter days, but what's their excuse in the summertime?

I must admit that Swedish coffee is superior to most other brews I've tried. Even the instant, which I have carried around on road trips through the US when you never know what sort of dishwater swill you'll be offered in small-town cafes.

I'd love to hear what your various readers think of Lisbeth's Ikea and 7-11 shopping lists. Some people hate them, others think they add verisimilitude and characterization. I tend toward the latter view.

bibliophiliac said...

@Reg-thanks for the suggestion of Camilla Lackberg. With only one book left in Larsson's trilogy, I will probably explore books by his compatriots. I side with you on Lisbeth's lists (verisimilitude) although other reviewers complain. I found the section in Girl Who Played with Fire where Lisbeth furnished her apartment strangely compelling. And the 7-11 trips I also liked. I am now intensely curious about Billy's pizza...First, how good can microwave pizza be, and second, is it really as ubiquitous as Larsson makes it seem? Like you, I look forward to reader comments with interest.

Gilion at Rose City Reader said...

That is just a great review! What a pleasure to read and I learned a lot.

Thanks for sharing the link to your review. I added it to the list on my review post.

Rose City Reader